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Concourse 2

Cleft sentences

avocado

A cleft sentence is a complex sentence ... that has a meaning that could be expressed by a simple sentence.
wikipedia.org (n.d)

If that is true, you may be forgiven for asking why the idea is not expressed in a simpler way.

think

Task 1: What do you understand to be the difference, for example between:
    I enjoyed the music most
and
    It was the music I enjoyed most?
Click here when you have an answer to that.


function

What do cleft sentences do?

Clefts function to give prominence to a particular part of a clause.  They do this by dividing the clause into two parts (hence the name) and assigning a verb to each noun phrase.  This is a way, in English, of marking, i.e., distinguishing, a proposition.  For more on markedness in English, see the guide linked in the list of related guides at the end.

We can, for example, take the simple sentence:
    Mary took her mother to a restaurant last night
and emphasise whichever part of the sentence we feel is important by making cleft sentences, like this:

emphasising the subject
It was Mary who took her mother to a restaurant last night
emphasising the direct object
It was her mother that Mary took to the restaurant last night
emphasising the adverbial of time
It was last night that Mary took her mother to a restaurant
emphasising the adverbial of place
It was to a restaurant that Mary took her mother last night

All four sentences above are examples of what is called, for a fairly obvious reason, an it-cleft.  They all begin with a dummy, anticipatory or empty it pronoun and use the verb be to make the clause.  In this way, two clauses have been produced from the single-clause sentence with which we started.
If the subject or the object of the sentence is emphasised we can use who as the relative pronoun although that will often be used as the pro-form for all noun phrases.

If you try saying those sentences aloud, you will notice that the stress falls on the emphasised item quite naturally: Mary, mother, last night, to a restaurant, respectively.
Part of the usefulness of cleft sentences is that they allow us to emphasise a particular element in the sentences in writing as well as in speech.
The hearer or reader is instantly aware that the writer or speaker has marked part of the sentence for the effect that needed to be communicated.

Cleft sentences proper, like these, have two important restrictions:

  • They do not allow us to emphasise the verb so we cannot have:
        *It was took that Mary her mother to the restaurant did last night
    To emphasise the verb, we have to resort to a pseudo-cleft with a wh-word and make, for example:
        What Mary did was take her mother to a restaurant last night.
    (An alternative is replace the verb with a non-finite, either the infinitive or the gerund, so we may have:
        It's eating in restaurants that Mary enjoys
        It's to go to a restaurant that Mary most wants to do
        It's eat out that Mary enjoys most
    but such formulations are quite rare and probably left until learners are able to cope happily with more conventional cleft sentences.)
  • They do not (usually) allow us to emphasise the complement of a copular verb so we don't normally find sentences such as:
        *It was an idiot that he appeared
        *It's Prime Minister that she became
        *It's foolish that he was
    Again, to emphasise the complement of the copular verb or the attribute is links to the subject, we have to resort to a pseudo-cleft with a wh-word and make, for example, the questionable and somewhat clumsy:
        What he appeared was an idiot
        What she became was Prime Minister
        What he was was foolish
        What she became was furious
        How he appeared was exhausted
        How it sounded was indescribably bad
4

Four alternatives in cleft sentences

  1. It is possible to use modal auxiliary verbs in cleft sentences so we can have, for example:
        It might have been Mary who took her mother to a restaurant last night
        It must have been her mother that Mary took to a restaurant last night
        It can't have been last night that Mary took her mother to a restaurant
        It could have been to a restaurant that Mary took her mother last night
  2. Cleft sentences may be used to emphasise the indirect object of the clause as in, for example:
        It was John Mary gave the book
    but in these cases, it is more common to prefer:
        It was John Mary gave the book to
    with John functioning as the complement of the preposition, to, rather than standing alone as the indirect object.
  3. It is possible to leave out the relative pronoun in the same way that they can be omitted from restricted or defining relative clauses.  For example:
        It was her mother Mary took to the restaurant last night
        It was last night Mary took her mother to the restaurant
        It was to a restaurant Mary took her mother last night

    but, as with relative clauses, we cannot omit the subject pronoun:
        *It was Mary took her mother to a restaurant last night.
  4. Although the dummy pronoun, it, is the most frequent way to introduce cleft sentences, there are alternatives using the demonstrative pronouns that and those (but not this and these) as in, for example:
        Those were my letters that the postman delivered
        That was her mother than she took to the restaurant

There are a number of ways to make cleft sentences, pseudo- or otherwise, in order to focus on a particular item.  Seven, in fact, and we'll exemplify them all.


four

4 main types of clefts

There are four sorts to consider first.

it-cleft
In most analyses, these sorts of sentences are the only true cleft sentences and the others which follow are better described as pseudo-cleft sentences.  That is probably a distinction which does not need to be the subject of a great deal of teaching time.
These are exemplified above and work like this:
    She enjoyed the hotel most
It was the hotel she enjoyed most
It is possible, as we saw above, to emphasise various parts of sentences with It-clefts.
It is also possible, but slightly rarer, to use that or those instead of it as in, e.g.:
    She enjoyed that hotel most That was the hotel she enjoyed most

A form of it-cleft sentences, not exemplified above, is one which contains a subordinate clause rather than a subject noun which the speaker / writer wants to mark.  It appears, for example in:
    I went to the bank because he wanted his money It was because he wanted his money that I went to the bank
Here the reference is not to a subject or object noun but to the adjunct, subordinate clause because he wanted his money.
Other adjunct adverbials, whether adverbs or prepositional phrases, can be similarly marked as in, for example:
    I worked on it at the weekend It was at the weekend that I worked on it
    I sat outside It was outside that I sat
    She responded enthusiastically It was enthusiastically that she responded
    She left at 9 It was at 9 that she left
There are those who would argue, with some reason, that forming cleft sentences to emphasise an adverb of manner or degree is rare or even wrong so sentences such as:
    ?It was hard that he was thinking
    ?It was frequently that she argued
    ?It was enormously that he enjoyed the party
are all, at the very best, questionable.  Many would reject them out of hand.
They are certainly worth avoiding for teaching purposes.
Even adverbs of time are sometimes questionably used in cleft sentences so while most would accept
    It was early in the morning when he arrived
which uses an adverbial prepositional phrase, the use of a simple adverb is less acceptable so, many would reject:
    ?It was early that he arrived
wh-cleft
These are usually referred to as pseudo-cleft sentences.  They allow the emphasis to fall on the verb phrase and it-clefts, as we saw, do not permit that usually.
    She enjoyed the hotel most
What she enjoyed most was the hotel
When a wh-cleft is used to emphasise the verb, the tense structure remains unaltered across the sentence so we can also have, for example:
    She has ruined the party What she has done is ruined the party
or
    She is ruining the party What she is doing is ruining the party
    We can use other wh-words (who(m), where, when, why, how) to make these so it is possible to have, e.g.,
    She liked the clowns most Who(m) she liked most were the clowns
    She most enjoyed going to the beach Where she enjoyed going most was to the beach
    She enjoyed taking a holiday in winter most When she enjoyed taking a holiday most was in winter
    She took a holiday to get away from work Why she took a holiday was to get away from work
    She paid for her holiday with a credit card How she paid for her holiday was with a credit card
although it is certainly arguable that the use of why and how produces clumsy expression.
We cannot use whose in this kind of cleft so, for example
    *Whose credit card was stolen was Mary's
is not acceptable.
To use whose, we need to resort to an it-cleft and even then the outcome is often rather clumsy but we can have, for example:
    It was Mary whose credit card was stolen
Reversed wh-cleft
The clue is in the name.  To make a sentence like this we reverse the position of the wh-word and the object of the verb.
    She enjoyed the hotel most
The hotel was what she enjoyed most
As we saw above, we can use other wh-words (who(m), where, when, why, how) to make these sorts of clefts:
    She liked the clowns most
The clowns were who(m) she liked most
    She enjoyed going to the beach The beach is where she enjoyed going most
    She enjoyed taking a holiday in winter most In winter was when she enjoyed taking a holiday most
    She took a holiday to get away from work To get away from work was why she took a holiday
    She paid for her holiday with a credit card With a credit card was how she paid for her holiday
although, again, it is certainly arguable that the use of why, and how produces clumsy expression.
And, again, the use of whose in such pseudo-cleft sentences is not available and an it-cleft is the only aleternative.
all-cleft
These are quite simple and exclude all other possibilities connected to the verb.  All-clefts emphasise the object of the verb, whether that is a noun phrase or a nominalised clause.
    She enjoyed the hotel
All she enjoyed was the hotel
and this implies that she enjoyed nothing except the hotel.
    She said she wanted to go All she said was that she wanted to go
and this implies that she said nothing else.
write

Task 2: Look carefully at the examples above and see if you can make the four main types of cleft sentences from this example:
Example: I'm trying to help the poor man
Click here when you have done that.


3

3 other types of clefts

That was quite easy to do but there are some other sorts of clefts that are harder to form but which are nevertheless quite common.  Here they are:

Inferential cleft
I'm trying to help the poor man It's not that I'm not trying to help the poor man.  It just looks that way.
there-cleft
I'm trying to help the poor man There's this poor man I'm trying to help
if-because cleft
I'm trying to help the poor man If it looks like I'm interfering, it's because I'm trying to help the poor man
test

Task 3: Before we go on, click here for a short test to make sure you can identify all seven types.



stress

Stress and meaning


write

Task 4: Now try making all seven types of cleft sentences with this example:
    We expected a refund
Click here to go on when you have made the sentences and considered these questions:

  1. How do we stress the sentences you make?
  2. Why?

languages

Other languages

Cleft sentences (or the meanings they encode) are handled very differently indeed in other languages.
For example, Chinese languages put shi before the item to be stressed and add a possessive de after it.  French uses the C'est structure to produce It-clefts.  Germanic languages, on the other hand, have similar ways to handle clefts to English structure.  Check what your learners' first language(s) do.


teaching

What to consider when teaching cleft structures

  1. Level: these are complex sentences which exhibit unusual word order in some cases and may well confuse learners at lower levels.  Handle with care.
  2. Focus: This guide has described seven forms of cleft and pseudo-cleft sentences which all exhibit different structural characteristics.  It would be foolhardy to focus on more than one or two at a time.  That way madness lies.
  3. Structure: the structures are usually quite similar: What / It / Who etc. + to be + the noun phrase but it can be another type of phrase in something like
        It was over the bridge that he fell
    It takes a little practice to get the structure right.
  4. Intonation and stress: are crucial to understanding and producing clefts.  Make sure they form part of the core of the teaching.
  5. Speaker / writer intention is also crucial.  We use the structures because we are concerned to make a message very clear in terms of what we, the speakers / writers, consider important.  You need to concept check and embed the language in absolutely clear contexts or the learners will just be manipulating the language for no communicative purpose.


Related guides
the word order map for links to other guides in this area
fronting for a guide to a closely connected area
markedness for a guide to how item may be distinguished in ways other than cleft sentences
circumstances analysing prepositional and adverbial phrases somewhat differently
relative pronoun clauses for the guide to a related area
coordination which all consider the ordering of clauses
subordination
conjunctions
postponement and extrapositioning which explains how items can be moved to the end of a clause or sentence for effect


If you would like to look at an exercise for learners on cleft sentences and perhaps use it as part of a lesson in this area you can access it here.